Highlights of Gov. Herbert’s May Press Conference: Medical Cannabis, San Juan Woes, SB54 and a New Data Center

In his monthly news conference for May and during a time of great political focus within the state of Utah, Governor Gary Herbert began his remarks by making a significant effort to single out the accomplishments of his Lieutenant Governor, Spencer Cox. “It’s kind of like that car rental commercial, ‘when you’re number two you have to try harder,'” said Herbert, who indicated that Cox had now served as his Lieutenant longer than Herbert had when Herbert held the number two job. (Herbert could have served longer in that supportive role but for the resignation of Jon Huntsman, Jr who went to Beijing as ambassador for President Obama in the summer of 2009).

Governor Herbert said that as a person, Cox is “emblematic of the people we have serving in state government.” He went on to laud the service of his state’s government employees, many whom Herbert acknowledged have come from the private sector, accepting less compensation for their expertise and service when chosen.

While singling-out Cox specifically after several politically-charged petitions (and counter-petitions) made their way towards his office for signature confirmation – and now heading into an equally tumultuous primary and general election season in Utah, Herbert underscored his Lieutenant’s participation on 35 commissions and committees, most recently the “Operation Rio Grande;” a multi-agency effort to root-out crime and to address homelessness in Utah’s capital city as well as on a suicide prevention task force. Observers noted that at some point, Cox could allow for an announcement about his own candidacy for the top spot when Herbert’s current term ends in 2020. Today’s praise passes a baton of endorsement which Cox may decide to use behind the scenes in the state’s GOP primary competition to be held next month on June 26.

No Term Limits for the Governorship

Since there are no term limits for the job, the potent posturing with this exposure and praise was seen by some as undeniable. Cox has recently begun publishing a podcast dealing with matters of interest to predominantly conservative, Mormon Utah and beyond. His oldest son is presently serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Mozambique, eastern Africa. Cox enjoys a broad base of support from his rural roots in the center of the Beehive State, including many in the metropolitan LGBT community and also within his heavily conservative, state Republican party.

School Safety and Recent Texas School Shooting

Citing the horrific case of yet another school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas south of Houston, a reporter asked Herbert if he was presently a member of the National Rifle Association. The Governor said that while he had been in the past, “I don’t think I’m currently a member; I don’t want to lay at the feet of the NRA the problem we have of school shootings, that’s probably too broad of a brush that [society] is painting with here,” indicating that the violence has many contributing factors, including “young people with mental health problems.” Herbert endorsed the NRA’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Second Amendment freedoms. “I’m not sure that the public is aware that 2nd Amendment rights are put into place by the states with state laws,” Herbert said, drawing a distinction between what occurs in Washington, D.C. and Utah where any firearms laws would need to be created by Utah’s legislative body.

Herbert stated that “We, in Utah are being very proactive,” on the school safety issue, acknowledging that society definitely has a problem to address. The Governor emphasized the effort made during the state’s legislative session when then, the most recent, mass shooting occurred in Florida. “We have put together superintendents and principals from our 41 school districts to come up with solutions, and to be sure that we’re currently doing what we’ve always been doing, including active shooter drills and [visitor] screenings,” he said. The concept of ‘prevention’ was cited, including counseling, law enforcement coordination and technological solutions to keep Utah’s campuses and students safe. “We are looking for expert recommendations from a public safety conference I attended yesterday and which got started when I was the Lieutenant Governor 11 years ago,” Herbert mentioned.

Utah’s Inland Port Conflicts

Asked about the current problems associated with agreements on how and which government entity should take the lead over the development of Salt Lake County’s “Northeast Quadrant,” where an industrial shipping hub has been planned with access to rail, airfreight, and trucking, Governor Herbert expressed confidence in the state’s ability to authorize subdivisions and for the area. He described Utah’s ongoing  economic development effort to become the “crossroads of the world,” in his words. Utah’s “Inland Port” is an initiative originating with World Trade Center Utah, providing significant growth and economic development opportunities for the state, according to proponents. Present controversies include which entity will be in line for the direct economic benefit, with some critics charging that the state ultimately wants to take over Salt Lake City’s international airport. Salt Lake City International already hosts regularly scheduled international flights and exists immediately adjacent to the area currently planned for the Inland Port logistics hub.

Many find it ironically significant that on so many, strident “state’s rights” efforts dealing with the supremacy of the federal government, the state now usurps “local control” in the case of Salt Lake City and County and their efforts to realize any economic gain from the development of that industrial area located on Salt Lake County’s northwestern side. The big difference in Herbert’s mind with this critical analogy is that the “state’s created the federal government,” said Herbert, “their rights are pre-eminent.” Herbert asserted that there are times that “for the good of the whole, we’re going to need to bring people together,” under the broader authority of his office and the legislative branch. The creation of the port authority occurred during the most recent legislative session in Utah which adjourned in March.

Herbert claims the prior agreements with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on how the Port Authority should be affirmed have now been met with her most recent response of, “Well, we’re not there,” (at a detailed agreement). “The work has fallen apart,” said Herbert, “which allows us only one option and that is to proceed with the laws that are on the books.” Observers believe that this means the state will proceed with its own authority at the expense of the local government but Herbert denied that Salt Lake City would be excluded from the composition of governing appointees. “The airport director is involved, along with other appointees from Salt Lake City and County government,” said Herbert, “That Port Authority needs to be put together so that we can function and that’s exactly what we will do.”

Governor Herbert Supports the Use of Medical Marijuana

On the current controversy of an upcoming November 9th election which will include the question of further (and limited) cannabis legalization, Herbert reiterated his stand that while supporting the use of marijuana for medical purposes to alleviate pain and suffering, (“I think there’s hope there”), he is still opposed to the ballot language and also the misguided efforts of a small minority attempting to undermine the process which he said needs to be revised. “When the people obtain 119,000 signatures, with sometimes as many as 200,000 and then have that effort thwarted by a few hundred [people], it seems the wrong way to go,” Herbert said, “I think that most of us take a look at that and say, ‘I’m not sure that’s fair,’ so I think we ought to take another look at [the process].” This process suggestion would not affect the ballot being prepared (and litigated) for November.

Herbert observed that since some of the conflicts on this specific issue are headed to the courts, he and the public will need to wait for those judicial outcomes. He also expressed a preference for a public debate on the cannabis issue to be scheduled for September or October ahead of the vote. The state has grappled with the issue for more than three years, including previous legislative attempts that ultimately failed. At that point, advocates went to the people with the initiative process and have prevailed, absent an unfavorable legal challenge from the state’s extreme conservatives. It has been contentious, to say the least.

On the State’s Caucus System

More contention has also been witnessed with the ballot process itself. Asked about his commitment to existing law which guarantees a “dual path” to the Utah ballot for candidate hopefuls, Herbert declined to speculate on what would happen with the possibility of a future special legislative session agenda item. In 2014 the legislature passed Senate Bill 54 which allowed for both neighborhood caucuses as well as signature gathering for candidates to get onto the ballot at both the local and statewide levels. Since that time, opposition has mounted in some circles with the idea that well-heeled campaigns omit vital grassroots discussions and better understanding of issues of concern to Utahns. At the recent GOP nominating convention, a group located in Utah County called “Keep My Voice” rallied to oppose the current nominating process. Acknowledging that the state has some “bad actors out there,”  regarding the efforts of some to undermine the ballot composition process, “There is no repeal of SB54,” said Herbert, “We have a law on the books which tells us how we will do elections,” sounding a definitive note to the “dual pathway,” issue. He feels that it is very simply a matter of law.

San Juan County, Utah’s Poorest, is Getting Poorer

Near the Four Corners area of the United States, the sovereign Navajo Nation exists in more than one of those four states, including Utah’s San Juan County. Recent legal challenges there, coupled with what some describe as blatant racism, have allowed for a depletion of the county budget needed to provide basic human necessities and infrastructure. Native candidates are being challenged by the dominant culture of those previously in power but federal mandates for redistricting could promise to make an end to organized, political discrimination there. The tribes of the Bear’s Ears region have mobilized and are ready to come to the negotiations table and the ballot box. Some of the long-standing, pioneer families residing  in the communities of Monticello, Bluff, and Blanding are not yet comfortable with the pending change and have run-up legal bills for the county surpassing millions of dollars. It’s a price that the local community can hardly afford and will leave Utah’s poorest county even poorer in the coming year.

In response, Herbert cited the autonomy of the tribes involved in that region as well as San Juan County’s poverty. “It’s the 29th out of 29 counties in terms of economic development,” and he acknowledged previously in the press conference that, “Democracy is messy sometimes and we have people who don’t color inside the lines and who don’t stay in their lanes and that’s why we have some authorities who enforce those [election] laws,” The Governor said that San Juan County was included in his “25,000 jobs” goal for rural parts of his state as part of the economic development effort there but he knew of the friction between a “sovereign nation (the tribal authority) within a sovereign state (Utah) within another sovereign nation (the U.S.A.) which provides ample opportunity for conflicts within all of these entities. “There’s been poor communication among [the entities] with the economic benefits of the [newly-defined] Bears Ears National Monument, for instance.”

Herbert felt that the commissioner’s seats, (three for San Juan County) should be “at large” positions to allay concerns originating with who is represented and how. He also cited efforts of the state’s annual “Native American Summit, where leaders get together for a couple of days and discuss economic, educational and jurisdictional concerns in a collaborative spirit.” He acknowledged the challenges inherent with frequent leadership changes among the entities involved but that the effort was being made to address local concerns.

A Data Center for Eagle Mountain

Governor Herbert said that the specific company planning to locate a data center in Eagle Mountain (within his own Utah County), would be announced “in the next couple of days.” Great anticipation on this development providing employment and tax base advantages to the area south of Salt Lake City and County, has had public policy officials tasked for weeks. Herbert stated that state and local tax authorities had already signed-off and that the area would soon realize the positive benefits of the additional growth there.

Critics maintain that the area may not be ready for the intended growth from with infrastructure and natural resource concerns, including the ongoing pollution of Utah Lake as a prime example. That lake receives treated effluent from neighboring communities to the east and west and current proposals to mitigate the pollution effects include even more real estate development.

Utah exhibits astounding growth and a positive economic outlook (with unemployment figures among the lowest in the nation as the Governor routinely boasts) but also endures  commensurate growing pains. Traffic densities and infrastructure shortfalls within the state continue to provide public frustration while mass transit plans provide further development challenges amidst looming population increases.

This installment of the Governor’s Monthly Press Conference will air locally on Sunday, May 27th at 5:30pm via KUED7.

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